Symbolic gestures do not compensate for planning failures

MFT.4 new cranes

Last Thursday, the MEPA Board finally decided to approve the Freeport Terminal’s application to install four cranes with 140-metre high jibs at the terminal. This decision was taken after the Board, in an anticipated about-turn, accepted a second declaration from Transport Malta as a recommendation for approval of the proposal.

In August, Transport Malta had pointed out that the installation of these new cranes was “not desirable” as, due to their height, they would “penetrate one of the established aeronautical protection surfaces by circa 18m”. However notwithstanding the conclusion that, for this reason, the Freeport’s proposal was not considered as undesirable, “given the importance of this facility to the economy”  Transport Malta gave its go-ahead to the Freeport’s proposal subject to a number of mitigation measures.

The Freeport facilities are too close to the residential area of Birżebbuġa and, over the years, MEPA has not given sufficient consideration to the impact that this facility has had – and is still having – on the quality of life of the residential community.

At no point during its consideration of the various planning applications submitted over the years has MEPA considered it necessary to consider the social impact of this economic activity. In fact, primarily as a result of the Freeport’s operations, most of the sport facilities in the area, introduced by the British services over the years, have disappeared. It is only recently that the extensive damage to the waterpolo pitch was made good,  through the reconstruction of a new waterpolo pitch. The activities of the Sailing Club, which  borders the terminal, have also been badly affected as a result of the increase in the number of ships making use of the terminal. The Birżebbuġa Sailing Club, ironically sponsored by the Freeport itself, is the only one of its kind in Malta’s political south.

Last Thursday, MEPA, despite opposition from the Freeport Terminal management, decided on compensating the Birżebbuġa community through the creation of an ad hoc fund to the amount of €955,000 to fund environmental improvement projects in the Birżebbuġa area. It is the second time in six years that MEPA has considered it necessary to take such a symbolic decision. The first time was in 2009, when a fund of €741,820 was created for the same purpose. That decision was, however, quashed by the Lawrence Gonzi-led Cabinet as a result of the planning appeal process, even though the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal  in an 11-page recommendation, explained why the original decision was to be confirmed.

The decision to create this latest ad hoc fund is symbolic in that it recognises the Freeport’s negative impact on the local community. It will not, however, have any substantial effect. It is just a symbolic recognition of the fact that the contribution of the Freeport Terminal to Malta’s economic growth is being achieved at the expense of the quality of life of Birżebbuġa residents.

It  is known that a number of residential properties in the area closest to the terminal have been vacant for a considerable time, as the noise generated through its operation is at times unbearable, irrespective of the time of day.

This is certainly a major failure of land-use planning in Malta, a failure that will be compounded in the coming months when other major planning decisions –  such as the gas storage facilities for the Delimara Power Station just across the bay from the Freeport Terminal – come into operation.

The transformation of Marsaxlokk Bay into an industrial port is now practically complete and, gradually, a substantial number of residents will be squeezed out.  It is the same process as that experienced by the Three Cities at Cottonera as a result of the activities of Malta Drydocks. The results can be seen by all.  Soon, the shedding of crocodile tears will commence and then the rehabilitation of Marsaxlokk Bay may possibly be planned.

originally published in The Malta Independent on Sunday – 13 December 2015